Natasha silenced the music she’d been listening to at full volume, and frowned.

‘Ava, I’ve made it clear that I’m not doing Christmas this year. No tree, no lights, no dried out turkey, no bread sauce - why the hell does that stuff even exist? Yes, I’d love some sort of regurgitated bread goo all over my dinner which, when combined with gravy, will form a lumpy slick on my tongue.’

Ava Turner braved a few more steps into the room, stopping short of actually sitting down. Her best friend, Professor Natasha Forge, was in no mood for a cosy chat nor was she going to respond well to a pep talk.

‘Okay, so what do you want to do on Christmas Day?’ she asked.

‘Honestly, probably just sleep. I want to not feel sick for a day. I want to not look in a mirror and be reminded that chemotherapy took my hair. I want my mobile not to beep at me when it’s time to take yet more medication.’

Ava nodded and allowed herself to flop into an armchair.

‘I get it,’ she said. ‘This year…’

They stared at one another. Finishing the sentence would have been pointless repetition of a conversation had too often in the previous months since Natasha had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The back door slammed and heavy footsteps stomped on the doormat.

‘Do not bring walk that mud through my kitchen!’ Natasha shouted.

Words were muttered low in French.

‘How many months have I lived with you both now?’ Luc Callanach asked her as he appeared, shoeless, removing his hat and scarf. ‘Several, correct? And on how many occasions have I walked mud through the house?’

‘None,’ Natasha said, a grin finally appearing on her face. It always did when Luc arrived home, Ava noted. She wasn’t jealous. It was a relief to see Natasha smile, to know that her best friend was still there, beneath the pain and the fear. ‘And that’s because I remind you every single time you get home.’

Luc collapsed onto the sofa next to her, slid an arm around her shoulders and kissed Natasha’s temple. ‘So have you decided how you want to celebrate Christmas Day yet? I’m on call but hopefully I won’t be needed. Ava’s free all d

ay, but that won’t help with the cooking unless we’re having a “remove the outer packaging, pierce the film and microwave for 3 minutes” Christmas dinner.’

Ava threw a cushion which he ducked neatly.

‘Christmas is off the menu,’ Natasha said. ‘The worst thing is the predictability of it all. How did a tradition become such a drag?’

‘It seems a shame to ignore it completely,’ Luc said.

‘The magic’s gone from it. There are some things you just can’t get back. I’m going to bed.’

‘Let me help you,’ Ava said, getting up.

‘I’m fine. You and Luc can stay here and whisper about what how grumpy I’m getting. It’s fine. I don’t blame you.’

Ava grinned. ‘You think I’d bothering whispering, woman? If I want to say something, I’ll say it to your face.’

That got half a smile in reply as Natasha made her way up the stairs to her bedroom.

‘What are we going to do?’ Ava asked when Natasha was out of earshot.

Luc shrugged. ‘These things have a way of working themselves out. Natasha’s in a difficult place. Wait and see how she feels in the morning.’

‘I don’t want to waste a Christmas with her, Luc. It’s too precious. I know I’m being selfish, but I want every memory I can get. The thought of pretending Christmas isn’t even happening tomorrow feels like such a loss.’

‘Ava,’ Luc said, pulling her to her feet. ‘Go to bed and stop thinking about it. Natasha should get the day she needs, that’s the most important thing.’

‘Am I at least allowed to give her a present?’

‘Only if you’re got one for me too.’ He kissed her on the cheek and followed Natasha up the stairs.

The doorbell rang at 6.46am on December 25. Ava was the first to get there, shivering in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms.

‘Sergeant Lively? What the hell’s going on?’

‘Need you out of the house straight away, ma’am. We’ve had a specific threat in relation to this property. We’re not currently sure if the target is you or Detective Inspector Fancy Pants with his designer stubble.’

Ava sighed. ‘Knock it off, Sergeant. It’s too early for you and DI Callanach to start scoring points off each other. Get off the doorstep and brief me about this threat.’

Lively stepped inside.

‘Non-specific at the moment. Someone called in the address and said they knew MIT officers lived here.’

‘We should listen to the tape,’ Ava said. ‘DI Callanach and I will go to the station. You get Professor Forge to a safehouse.’

‘Tape won’t help, ma’am,’ Lively sa

id. ‘They used a voice changer.’

‘Ava, what’s going on?’ Natasha asked. She stood at the top of the stairs, arms folded.

‘Nothing to worry about,’ Ava said. ‘But we’ll need to leave for a few hours while my team secure the property.’

‘We’ll take good care of you, I promise,’ Lively said.

Natasha took a deep breath. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘Give me five minutes then I’m all yours…’ She waited for the introduction.

‘This is Sergeant Lively,’ Ava explained. ‘Sergeant, Natasha will need to be taken somewhere comfortable and warm. She’s currently going through…’

‘Don’t you bloody dare,’ Natasha said. ‘This is turning out to be a more exciting Christmas Day than I could possibly have imagined so I’m banning the C word for 24 hours, got it?’

‘Got it,’ Ava said quietly and Natasha marched away to get ready.

‘I like her,’ Lively smirked. ‘By the way, the Superintendent’s asked for DI Callanach to remain here. Sir, you should make sure you’re visible within the property during the day. Curtains drawn, take the opportunity to open the front door a couple of times. We’ll have units in the vicinity but it seemed better to maintain an opportunity to make an arrest.’

‘I don’t agree, sergeant,’ Ava said. ‘As the senior officer here, I think leaving DI Callanach vulnerable is a mistake.’

‘Sorry, ma’am, but the evil Overbitch says you’re a witness and potential victim so you’re not to be involved in operational planning. You and Professor Forge will be taken to a hotel and remain there until matters are finalised.’

‘Lively, I made it very clear that you cannot call Superintendent Overbeck…alternative names. Now, I need to…’

‘You need to leave, quickly.’ Luc said.

‘Whoever made this threat could be watching right now, and it’s not fair to leave Natasha vulnerable. Let Lively escort you. I’ll stay in contact and we’ll decide when it’s safe for you to return.’

Natasha descended the stairs carrying a backpack and looking intensely happy. Ava got changed and grudgingly followed her out of the house.

‘Stay safe,’ she said quietly to Luc as she exited.

‘I’ll be fine, I promise,’ he replied.

Ava phoned every hour on the hour. Natasha was in the background demanding updates as she described the hotel suite they’d been allocated and ate her way through the menu. At 6pm Superintendent Overbeck stood the operation down, explaining that they’d identified the source of the threat and that it had been nothing more than a time waster playing a prank.

Ava unlocked the front door, mid conversation with Sergeant Lively.

‘I still want whoever did this to be charged,’ she said. ‘That’s a day of police time, not too mention the expense of the hotel suite and the distress that could have been caused.’

‘You’re kidding,’ Natasha laughed from behind her. ‘A 5 star hotel and the best cocktails I’ve ever tasted on the one day this year I was given permission to drink. No home cooked food, no crap TV and no tinsel. It was everything I wanted.’

‘I’d still like to know the identity of whoever called in the threat. It might be someone I’ve come into contact with before. I’m not sure we should be ruling out a genuine problem so quickly.’

Lively laughed. ‘Oh, I think we can be quite sure, ma’am. Mind you, the perpetrator owes me a bloody big favour, getting me out of bed so early when I wasn’t even on duty.’

‘Thank you, sergeant,’ Luc said from the far end of the hallway. ‘I’ll remember.’

‘That’s a year’s worth of the drinks being on you. Well, I’ve a bottle of the good stuff with my name on it. Good evening ma’am, Professor.’ He did a mock salute. ‘And may I wish you a very happy Christmas.’

Lively left looking smug. Ava stood, fa

ce like thunder, hands on hips.

‘Luc, what were you thinking? I’ve been worried about you all day. Natasha was…’

‘I was fine,’ Natasha interjected. ‘But I don’t understand…’

‘Could you please both wait a minute?’ Luc asked. ‘Just sixty seconds more? Then you can spend the entire evening being angry or moaning or asking questions. Follow me.’

He walked into the pitch black back garden and told Ava and Natasha to stand still while he disappeared into the shed.

With the flick of a switch the garden was lit up with string after string of golden fairy lights. In the centre of the lawn, three deckchairs had been covered in cushions and blankets. Luc walked to a small iron fire pit in the middle of the circle of chairs and lit the kindling.

‘Christmas dinner,’ he explained. ‘Apparently baked potatoes cooked in foil is about as far from turkey and the trimmings as we could get. That was Lively’s idea. I am insisting on melting a decent French brie inside each potato though. And I chose French wine too.’

‘Luc,’ Natasha said softly. ‘Is this what you’ve spent all day doing? You set the whole thing up to get us out of the house?’

‘It’s not like you’d have gone willingly,’ Luc said.

‘And the hotel suite? The bar bill? Are you paying for that too?’

‘You’re both so hard to buy for, and it was a present I didn’t even have to wrap. Now sit down. There’s one last surprise left.’

They settled themselves on the lawn chairs and wrapped up warm as Luc served drinks.

Switching off the lights again, he pulled a

remote control from his pocket and pressed a couple of buttons. The back wall of the garage came alive with movement and light.

‘Star Wars,’ Natasha gasped. ‘My favourite movie.’

‘I borrowed the projector form one of the team,’ Luc said. ‘Now, has this been a sufficiently non-Christmas Day for you?’

Natasha threw off her blankets and walked across to hug him.

‘It’s been perfect,’ she said. ‘Don’t let Ava tell you any differently.’

They watched the film, ate, drank and laughed late into the night. Ava helped an exhausted Natasha to her room then rejoined Luc by the fire.

‘Was the Superintendent in on it as well?’ she asked.

‘She had to be, in case you phoned her, as were the on-call team at the station.’

‘That’s quite the charade. You could have told me, you know. It would have been easier. I could have been better prepared…’

‘Ava,’ Luc said quietly, slipping his arms around her shoulders. ‘What makes you think this was Natasha’s gift?’

Ava shrugged. ‘But it was everything she wanted - the break in tradition…’

‘And what you wanted was to see her excited again. To see her smile. You wanted her to have a day where you made a new memory together.’

Ava looked away too late to hide the shimmering in her eyes.

‘So what am I supposed to give you as a gift that can ever match up to this?’ she asked.

‘Just this moment,’ he said. ‘It’s more than enough.’

*Happy Christmas from Luc, Ava, Natasha, Sergeant Lively & Superintendent Overbeck *

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Claire jogged through the shopping centre. The sign for the toilets taunted her in the distance. Since she’d had the baby, time had begun playing tricks on her. So many hours to fill, yet never a free minute to get to the loo. Molly’s pram was slowing her down. It was enormous, the latest thing in baby safety, but it was like manoeuvring a tank.

A note on the family toilet door proclaimed it ‘Out of order’. She kept going towards the ladies’, issuing a stream of apologies as she went. The door to the disabled toilet was no more welcoming. That too presented a sticker barring entry for some undefined fault. Claire tensed her stomach, knowing there was no way the pram would fit into a standard cubicle, equally certain that she didn’t have time to get Molly into the baby harness.

‘Excuse me, the pram won’t fit,’ she told an older lady who was washing her hands. ‘Couldyou watch my baby a moment?’

‘Of course,’ the woman smiled sweetly into the pram. ‘We’ll be fine, won’t we?’ she cooed at Molly. ‘Thank you,’ Claire said, already inside the cubicle, fiddling with an uncooperative bolt. New voices echoed within the tiled enclosure, girls talking a million miles an hour about lipstick. Claire gave silent thanks for having averted one more crisis in a normal day of parenting a three month old, then made her way back out of the cubicle. She peered through the preening girls, reaching for the taps, looking left and right to check on Molly. Standing still, soap dripping off her hands, she double-checked the view. The pram had been just a few doors down. She stepped back, treading on a girl’s toes, saying sorry as the girl responded with a word she hoped Molly wouldn't know at such a young age. ‘Molly?’ she called, feeling stupid instantly. Her daughter was hardly going to recognise her name, let alone answer. ‘Have you seen an old woman with a pram?’ she asked the girls. ‘She was right here two minutes ago.’

The girls stared as if she was mad, shaking their heads and clearing out in a gaggle. There were tears on her cheeks as she caught her face in the mirror. Clutching her stomach, her heart no quieter than a stampede, she saw a yellow note stuck on the counter just below the wash basin where she’d been standing.

‘Your baby is at lost property,’ the paper said. Claire grabbed it, thinking it couldn’t possibly be for her, knowing it couldn’t be for anyone else. Why had she left Molly with a stranger? Surely her own needs could never have outweighed her daughter’s safety. How was she going to explain it to her husband, and why wasn’t she already moving? She grabbed her handbag, breaking into a sprint, fighting the growing nausea inside and grateful beyond belief that she already knew where lost property was located. One floor down on the escalator and Claire was there, glancing over shoulders and heads to catch a glimpse of the pram. ‘Excuse me…’ Claire said. ‘I’m just helping someone else, madam, could you wait please?’ a suited, heavily made-up woman responded without looking at her. ‘I was told my baby was in lost property. Have you seen a baby? A little girl? Three months old.’ The lost property official glared at her as if she was insane. Claire lowered her eyes, aware that she wasn’t getting enough oxygen and that she didn’t have the luxury of sitting down. The note was hanging precariously from the bottom edge of the lost property sign. For a second, Claire wondered if she was hallucinating. Reaching out a shaking hand, she touched the yellow square, the printing upon it blurring as she tried to read. It took three attempts before the words made sense. ‘A baby is not “property”. Go to security.’ ‘Where’s security?’ Claire blurted. ‘I’m sorry, I have asked you to…’ ‘My baby’s missing,’ she yelled, banging a hand on the desk. ‘Just tell me where the security office is and I’ll go away!’ ‘Two floors up, next to the cafe,’ the woman said. ‘And there is a policy about abusive behaviour towards employees, you know.’ She was already gone, dashing for the lifts, mobile in hand, wondering if she should phone her husband straight away. Right now, he was on a train to London. Short of terrifying him, there was absolutely nothing he could do to help. She was alone. By the time she’d exited the lift and scrambled to security, her eye-makeup had formed tree root patterns down her cheeks and the only sounds she could make were sobs. ‘My baby,’ she ranted. ‘Baby’s gone. Molly. From the toilets downstairs. Please help.’ ‘All right, try to calm down a bit love. We handle twenty lost children a day. Haven’t lost one yet for more than half an hour. Give me a description.’ The security officer opened a notebook with infuriating slowness. ‘Molly’s only three months old. She didn’t go anywhere. Someone took her,’ Claire shrieked. ‘Someone walked off with your baby? Which shop were you in at the time?’ he asked. ‘I was in the ladies toilets. I asked this woman to look after her and she seemed nice, so I went into the cubicle and now she’s gone. Can’t you, I don’t know, lock down all the exits or something? You can’t let her leave!’ ‘Well, that’s an unusual scenario, that is. Can you describe the woman you left your baby with?’ Claire tried to recall the details. Her mind was blank. ‘She was older, maybe, I’m not sure, over sixty. Wearing a coat, I think. And a hat. Not sure what colours. I can’t really…’ ‘The baby, then. Can you give me a good description of the baby?’ ‘Um, grey pram, her name’s Molly, some empty shopping bags in the net underneath.’ ‘That’s not hugely helpful if you don’t mind my saying, Miss. We’ll need more than that or we’ll end up stopping every older lady and every pram in the building.’ ‘I didn’t pay attention, all right? I was desperate. I just need you to find her! Please, please do something. This is useless!’ Claire ran from the security office, dashing into shop after shop, racing towards prams, staring at tiny faces, the traitorous minutes both dragging and racing. A hand on her shoulder halted her progress. Molly closed her eyes with relief at the sight of the police uniforms. ‘Oh, thank you, it’s been fifteen minutes and I can’t see her anywhere. Have you found the woman?’ ‘We’re here to talk to you, ma’am,’ the officer said. ‘We’ve had reports that a baby has been abandoned in the ladies’ toilet. Can I ask you to confirm your name?’ ‘I didn’t abandon Molly, she was taken. I looked everywhere. There were these notes…’ Claire saw the folded arms, the unsympathetic looks, and she ran, dashing down escalators, racing through the crowds, holding her breath until she burst into the toilets. There Molly was, giggling happily at a police woman, still tucked cosily into her pram. Fine. Absolutely fine. Claire ripped open the belt clips, clutching Molly against her chest, burying her face in the baby’s hair. ‘You can’t just go off shopping and leave your baby, ma’am. It’s not safe,’ the WPC said. ‘There were notes,’ Claire said. ‘The other toilets were out of use, and this old lady stole her…’ She looked around. The disabled toilet door was open, obviously operational. Back up the corridor, the family toilet was noisy with a group inside. The WPC raised her eyebrows. ‘We won’t take your details on this occasion, but please be aware that we take these matters very seriously. It’s a good job we located you as quickly as we did, or we’d have had to call social services.’ An hour later, Claire collapsed onto her couch at home. Molly was unharmed, that was all that mattered. Perhaps she’d overreacted, perhaps the old lady had simply become confused. Molly wriggled on her lap. With still shaking hands, Claire undid the baby’s coat to remove her babygrow, gasping as the slip of yellow paper fell from Molly’s back. Picking it up with thumb and forefinger, Claire grimaced as if it were poison. ‘That was entertaining,’ the note said. ‘See you again?’

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‘Holly, we discussed this. You agreed there’s nothing else left to try,’ Dr Falstaff announced. Holly recognised the tone of voice. He’d made up his mind.

‘Fine,’ she said. ‘But I’m only giving it one day. Immersion therapy might work for people who’re scared of crowds but this is different. It’s evil, in fact.’

‘Ducks, Holly. They’re ducks, not evil. You have to identify them as simple animals. That’s the key.’

‘Don’t lecture me, Dad,’ Holly moaned. ‘I hate feeling like one of your patients.’

‘I’m a psychiatrist and you have a phobia. I think it’s helpful for you to understand that I’m

equipped to get you through your anatidaephobia.’

‘That’s it. I’m going.’ Holly grabbed her fluorescent tabard and opened the car door. ‘I’d

rather be staring at the beady-eyed little monsters than listen to any more of your psycho babble. I can’t believe you’re putting me through this.’

‘You also needed a job, remember? I called in favours to get this for you. The first hour will

be the worst. After that, your brain will start to normalise. We can’t maintain high levels of fear for long periods.’

‘Maybe not, but I can hold a grudge for at least a decade,’ Holly muttered, slamming the car


The hotel was enormous. Its marble tiled lobby boasted a world famous central feature. The

man made miniature lake, waterfall and all, was lit with twinkling lights and surrounded by fake greenery. Holly reported to the front desk where a man thrust a whistle and keys at her, pointing in the direction of the rear of the building.

‘Ducks are in the wooden house out the back. I was expecting you earlier. Just unlock their

door and blow the whistle three times. They’ll fall into line behind you. Make sure no one touches them or they’ll be marching straight back into their house. Stay out of shot while guests are taking photos. You’re to remain in the background at all times but make sure you can safeguard the ducks if there’s trouble. Off you go.’

What sort of trouble could there possibly be, Holly wondered, as she found her way to the

rear of the hotel. The briefing couldn’t have been more dramatic if she’d joined MI5 and been

posted to protect a foreign dignitary.

The duck house loomed in the distance, all boarded up, horror movie style. She froze in

front of it. Remembered to breathe. Took another step. It was their eyes she hated. The blackness of them, the fact that you couldn’t tell exactly where they were looking. Only she knew they were staring at here. And here she was, about to unleash her personal version of hell for supposedly therapeutic purposes. There was no specific history to her phobia. No incident when she was a toddler. Just a steady dawning with each passing year that the flappy-winged, sharp-beaked creatures every other child thought cute and hilarious made her want to run screaming, and hide.

‘They’re just ducks,’ she said aloud as she slid the key into the lock. ‘Not evil. Just feathery

sweetness.’ Her heart was pounding as she opened the door and stepped back. There was a moment when nothing happened, then the orange brown arc of a beak appeared, followed by a head and a feathery body. The lead duck stepped forward. Behind it, quacking at the sudden daylight and freedom, came three other fully grown ducks and seven smaller ones - not babies - but not yet fully matured into a Holly’s nightmare creature.

Her panic threatened to overwhelm her. There was a momentary stand off. Holly stared at

the lead duck who made a sound that resembled Halloween cackling. Closing her eyes and

gathering her inner strength, Holly blew the whistle three times then turned around, moving slowly but steadily towards the door to the hotel. The ducks waddled in her footsteps. Holly felt faint, sick and ready to sprint all at once. She heard the mad squawk and spun round before she’d considered what might be happening.

‘Duck!’ a man yelled behind her.

The feathered demon flapped straight towards her face. Holly stumbled away, tripping over

her own feet, and landing flat on her back. The duck came in to land. Holly’s chest offered a

delightfully soft option for its leathery, webbed feet.

‘No,’ she murmured, unable to raise the volume of her voice at all. ‘Please, get it off. Help

me,’ she sobbed. ‘Help.’ The duck took a step forward, eyes glittering in the sunlight, head dipping as it moved.

‘Off you scoot,’ the man who’d issued the warning said, pushing the duck gently sideways

and picking Holly up. She covered her face with her hands, reddening with embarrassment, still shaking with fear.

‘You going to be okay?’ the man asked.

She took a deep breath. ’I suspect I now hold the world record for the shortest time a job has

been kept, and my duck phobia has been reaffirmed in the worst possible way. Apart from that…’

‘Maybe not,’ he said, calling over another staff member to relieve Holly of her whistle. ‘I

reckon there’s a better way to deal with your phobia than this. You don’t even need to stop working at the hotel if you want a job. Come with me.’

He lead her back inside through a different door, as the ducks waddled happily away to their

indoor pool.

Holly’s parents met her for dinner. She sat them at a table overlooking the hotel grounds and

cheerfully announced that she’d dealt with her crippling fear.

‘So your duck keeper job is a success!’ her father beamed. ‘Darling, I’m so pleased.’

‘Not exactly,’ Holly said. ‘But I have got a new job. Wait here.’ She disappeared behind

swinging steel doors and returned carrying two steaming plates.

‘Duck à l’orange,’ she smiled. ‘And don’t worry. Chef promises they’re not the ones from

the lobby.’

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